By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Apr 12, 2012 at 9:03 AM

Do you dream of tender, slow-cooked pork with deep, golden brown skin, striped with rivulets of caramelized fat that crackle at each bite?

Does your heart melt at the thought of biting into a slice of delectably crispy smoked belly, or hearing the distinct crackle of crisp fried chicharrones?

If you do, you'll want to give some serious thought to attending SloPig Milwaukee, a celebration of fine swine and robust spirits. The event takes place Sunday, April 22 at the Intercontinental Hotel in Downtown Milwaukee.

SloPig could be described as a gigantic cocktail party – an indulgent celebration of pork and punch, with a bit of friendly competition thrown in for good measure. And it's all of that. But, it's also a testament to what happens when we slow things down, pay attention to details and give our food the time it takes to develop to its true potential.

Patterned after the event which took place in Madison this past fall, SloPig Milwaukee will feature food and beverages prepared by competing chefs and bartenders, as well as samples provided in the Tasting Hall, which will include over 50 bites and small plates of heritage pig, gallons of punch and a variety of other samples and sips prepared by industry leading farmers, chefs, mixologists, craft distillers and breweries.

In addition to food and drink, SloPig will showcase local art and music performances throughout the evening. VIP guests will also be invited to partake in additional food and cocktail demonstrations featuring area chefs and mixologists.

The highlight of the event will be the whole hog competition. Six area chefs, including four James Beard nominees, will each be given a whole heritage breed hog. They'll be charged with producing five to seven creatively executed small plates to be sampled by attendees and a panel of professional judges. The winner will be crowned and awarded a one-of-a-kind SlowPig cast iron pan poured especially for the event.

Chefs will include Nelly Buleje, banquet chef for Hilton Milwaukee; Jarvis Williams, executive chef at Carnevor; Dan Van Rite of Hinterland Erie Street Gastropub; Tory Miller, executive chef and co-proprieter of L'Etoile in Madison; Dave Swanson, owner and executive chef of Braise restaurant; and returning Slow Pig Madison champion and James Beard nominee Justin Aprahamian of Sanford.

"I don't look at it as a competition," says Van Rite. "It is a time to get to hang out with people we respect. If we win, great, but in the end it's all about the pork."

Aprahamian agrees. "I think it is a great thing, exposing people to important things like heritage pigs, raising awareness about what has become kind of a lost art ... heritage pigs, curing, sausage making, a respect for using the whole animal. It's also a blast getting a bunch of chefs together to hang and compare notes."

Chefs like Swanson, Van Rite and Aprahamian have been working with heritage breeds for years. Others are newer to the process. Williams says he's broken down about 20 pigs during his career, most sourced from Hidden Creek Farms in New London, owned by SURG partner Mike Polaski.

"I'm very excited," Williams says. "I'm happy to be chosen to compete with some of the best chefs in the state." He's also excited to unveil a 14-month prosciutto he's developed especially for the competition.

Buleje grew up watching his father make carnitas every summer for family gatherings.

"He and all my uncles would go to a farm here in Wisconsin and buy a whole pig, butcher it, and then begin the two-day cooking process," Buleje reflects.

"My dad would render the fats and make carnitas, while my mother and aunts would begin preparing chorizo and longanizas (Mexican and Guatemalan sausages). The next morning everyone would wake up early and my father would make chicharones with the pork rinds for everyone."

Buleje will use the memory of those comfort foods from his childhood as inspiration for his dishes, and expects to utilize ingredients and techniques from South and Central America, Italy and Asia.

Meanwhile, L'Etoile's Miller plans to feature a number of more unusual cuts of pork in his dishes, including the skin, jowls, back fat and lard.

"The biggest challenge," he says, "is editing. Wanting to not only represent yourself as a cook, but also showcase the biggest and most delicious beast on the planet. Pigs are almost too versatile!"

But, while the chefs work on creating original dishes, Dan Fox, SloPig founder and executive chef at the Madison Club, is concentrating on one of the biggest challenges of pulling an event like this together.

"Creating awareness is huge," he says. "It's all about the marketing and promoting, continuing to get the word out. It's also about getting people on the same page. What is a heritage pig? What's a mixologist? Why does any of this matter?"

The short answer to the question Fox poses is, of course: flavor.

Unlike the ultra-lean, flavor-light pork frequently found in supermarkets, heritage breeds like the Red Wattle and Swabian Hall – an Ossabaw/Meishan cross – feature succulent fat and flavorful meat, nuanced by the subtleties of the food they eat and the land on which they are raised.

But, the longer answer gets into a bit of agricultural history. Years ago, myopic breeders began favoring commodity hogs – pigs that could reproduce quickly, bear large litters and grow to market size in record time. Unfortunately, with these selections came the loss of fat, red muscle fibers and flavor.

Heritage breed pigs come from bloodlines going back hundreds of years when livestock was raised on multi-use, open-pasture farms. Because of their lifestyle and inherent genes, different breeds became known for a variety of characteristics, including the rich and hearty taste of their meat, distinct marbling, high-quality bacon and creamy fat.

Today, these breeds still carry excellent qualities, but many are not suited for commercial farming practices. As a result, they are in danger of being lost forever. As fewer heritage breed pigs are grown, their gene pool decreases, and some breeds are now becoming critically rare.

In today's commercial market, heritage breeds cannot compete with commodity pigs. The additional care and time involved in raising heritage breed pigs makes them more expensive to raise. They take longer to gain weight because of their indigenous diets and the fact that they are raised on open pastures.

Responsibly, carefully raised heritage breed pigs taste better than what you can find in a grocery store, with nuances produced by what they eat and where they're grown. And because of that care, both the meat and the fat are healthier.

"I was reminded again of the importance of this event the other day when I went to my processor," says Fox, who moonlights as a heritage pig farmer. "He told me about two to three more farms that have stopped producing pork. With commodity prices increasing, things just aren't getting easier."

But, SloPig has provided an avenue through which Fox can educate the public about the necessity to bring back heritage breeds. In addition to the chefs' competition, attendees will also have the opportunity to participate in a whole hog butchering demonstration put on by Scott Buer of Bolzano Artisan Meats.

"There's something about watching a pig being broken down before you, while you're eating delicious pork items ... it opens people up in a new way, takes them out of their comfort zones," Fox explains.

"Throughout the event, there will be a consistent undertone of education about pork, cocktails, artisan products. But, above all, we want to throw an awesome party where people are more encouraged to really hear the message we're conveying and get involved."

Will SloPig Milwaukee mark the coming of age for the Milwaukee dining scene? One thing is for certain. The event will offer Milwaukee residents and visitors yet another opportunity to connect with their food, its producers, and those chefs who make every day in the city truly delicious.

"I'm a huge fan of the Milwaukee food scene now," Fox remarks. "It's been a privilege to get to know everyone – media, chefs, bartenders. Everyone is bending over backwards for us. It's been incredible."

Looking for a taste of what's to come at SloPig Milwaukee? Attend a pre-event "Punch and Pig" party at 8 p.m. Friday, April 13 at the Great Lakes Distillery. Tickets are $20 per person and are available online or at the door.

More information and tickets for SloPig Milwaukee are available online. Ticket prices are $100 for general admission, with VIP tickets for $150.

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.